3 leadership lessons from a lifetime of observation

3 leadership lessons from a lifetime of observation

Leadership is one of the most debated topics in business. Over the last seventeen years with Chemistry I have had the good fortune to profile and work with exceptional leaders. Pressed to pick only three, here are my most observed traits from the most successful leaders I have worked with.

Great leaders are always seeking talent where others do not (and this talent works hard for them)

My first real break occurred in the unlikeliest of places; one o’clock in the morning, exhausted, my back in bits having served champagne and canapés all evening to a load of suits in a corporate box watching Eric Clapton play his favourite venue, the Royal Albert Hall. Standing to attention as the guests filed out, a short greying gentleman approached me and said: “I’ve been watching you all night kid, come work for me.” He gave me the address of a car rental company in central London, told me to be there at 9am on Sunday and that was that.

I spent the next three years of my life working for Frank, exposed to every aspect of the business. He pushed me to think and work hard in a way no-one ever had, teaching me the fundamentals of how the business operated and was never short of advice.

I’ve observed this same trait in every one of the other great leaders I have profiled; their radar for talent being constant. And, when they do find it, they ensure there are no barriers to entry. I was reminded of this trait watching the documentary The Defiant Ones that covered Jimmy Iovine’s approach to talent which proved stratospheric for Interscope Records.

There was one particular line he said, recalling his and Dr Dre’s signing of Eminem, that really stood out: “We weren’t looking for a white controversial rapper, we were looking for great.” It’s exactly this momentum of always being on the lookout, of having a non-conformist attitude to talent that is a constant in great leaders.

In the crucible of feedback, being immediate, honest, and unfiltered is often best.

The first time I met Archie Norman was in his parliamentary offices. A devotee of observation one, his use of feedback to push and shape the talent he had championed was remarkable. Honest and largely unfiltered, it often could sting like hell, but it made the next two and half years I worked for him a constant learning curve, and the feedback, on reflection, was always right. I think it helped that in my previous job, under another leader, I’d had a baptism of fire when it came to taking feedback – more how not to deliver it (profanity is a no-no), so Archie’s seemed positively constructive in comparison.

Current discourse likens the role of leaders to that of coaches (see this recent article by Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular), meaning leaders need to get comfortable with giving critical feedback, to tackle poor performance head-on, and to not shy away from difficult conversations to deliver feedback when it’s needed ­– not hours or days later.

The former CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo famously said, “as a leader you need to care deeply about your people, while not worrying what they think about you,” which absolutely plays into how you view and give feedback. Although I laugh when I hear the phrase feedback is a gift, for me as an employee it really was, despite how much it may have smarted at the time.

Focus and patience always pay off

It’s often said that great leaders are task orientated, by which we mean they do what it takes to get the job done. This is rarely a short-term occupation but one of great foresight and patience, and one that I learnt to my detriment. I left a company frustrated by a leader who I thought was unreceptive to my ideas (note to self, always leave graciously). Ten years later, running my own business I reflected that my impression of this leader had been naïve. In those ten years he had implemented every idea I had put to him, he knew his business, what changes would be appropriate and when, and I had foolishly not seen it because my short-term thinking was not aligned with his. Whilst I was concerned about the next quarter and year he was thinking about the next decade.

We often say in talent, recruit for where you want to go, not where you are now and this is why it is crucial to align the same focus and patience you employ for strategic goals to talent strategy – the people who will deliver the change you desire. We are presently working with a leader who has spectacularly transformed a multibillion-dollar business, through sheer focus and patience, a case-study which we will publish soon.

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